There are signs that such stubborn eclecticism reflects a national trend. Last year, Disney-owned "indie" company Miramax created Rolling Thunder, a distribution label that exclusively supports the whims of bad-boy-turned-bore Quentin Tarantino. Remarkably, they agreed to market obscure new foreign releases and dusty American B-movies suggested by Tarantino, the Oscar-winning former video-store employee whose appreciation for "bad" movies is as passionate as it is encyclopedic. In an age when everybody loves irony but nobody knows how to define it, we'll see how Miramax fares with this brave excursion into a cutthroat marketplace.
Still, intrepid Dallas Observer film geeks Jimmy Fowler and Arnold Wayne Jones have noticed that there are plenty of wonderful movies out there already available for mass consumption, but gathering dust on local video shelves, woefully neglected in the stampede toward that section marked "New Releases." What follows is a critical guide to their favorite unsung films. This shouldn't be confused with a critics' best-films-of-all-time list. The only factor common to the guilty pleasures, forgotten classics, and fascinating flukes in this rude pile is their relative obscurity--or a bad reputation unjustly earned. As of this writing, all titles can be rented at a Dallas video store (don't discount Blockbuster, whose Lemmon Avenue location is surprisingly adventurous).
Hail the Conquering Hero. Writer-director Preston Sturges' movies stand as possibly the funniest a single man ever produced. His most famous pictures--The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve, Unfaithfully Yours--are all terrific, but his best, Hail the Conquering Hero, is among his lesser-known. The pacing of the dialogue and the quality of the lines themselves are comedic timing at its peak. Discharged from the Marine Corps because of chronic hay fever, a small-town boy (the moon-faced Eddie Bracken) finds himself mistakenly lionized as a war hero by his hometown. The plot often just goes through the motions, but it does so with surprising freshness and, most surprisingly, an incredible feel for the complex relationship between the fake hero and the Marine who aided him in his deception. The result is that, by the end, you may find the humor rollicking, but it's the strong message of personal honor that makes it something special, a farce with a heart of deep emotion.
Hara Kiri. This has the feeling of a short story, in which an economy of language, ideas, characters, and images resonates with sharp irony, like the distillate of a pungent odor. A circular and deliberately paced tale set in 17th-century Japan, Hara Kiri tells how members of a temple known for "paying off" former Samurai to prevent them from committing ritual suicide decides to remedy their reputation as chumps by allowing one such death. Director Masaki Kobayashi at first plays with your loyalties, leaving you to wonder who the hero must be. Perfectly acted and beautifully shot in black-and-white, this moody, engrossing drama builds slowly toward a wrenching conclusion.
I Am Cuba. Before Martin Scorsese rediscovered the minor French classic Purple Noon--which just ended a theatrical run in Dallas--he brought the long-lost I Am Cuba to video stores. An engrossing visual feast, I Am Cuba must stand as one of the most impressive uses of cinematography in the history of film. Using what appears to be a hand-held camera with almost no shaking (long before the invention of the SteadiCam), the director, Mikhail Kalatozov, tells numerous stories about life in Cuba in a quasi-documentary fashion. He weaves in and out of crowds, uses phenomenally long tracking shots, accomplishes near-unbelievable feats of visual legerdemain, and does so without any computer graphics. There's not much plot, and the pro-Castro proselytizing may be hard to stomach, but I Am Cuba is one of the triumphant, unappreciated gems of modern cinema.
In a Lonely Place. Nicholas Ray was one of the most astonishing directors to emerge from the studio system, in part because he didn't seem to fit well inside it. Knowing that lends a certain cynical cruelty to the plot of In a Lonely Place, his best--and probably least-viewed--film. Humphrey Bogart plays a Hollywood screenwriter accused of murder, and what makes the story so disarming is that you're never sure whether he did it. But the film is less a whodunit than a compelling character study of a violent, unstable personality. Gloria Grahame, as the one person who sees in Bogart the potential for compassion, has the boozy eyes and worn face that were her trademarks in the '40s and '50s. Even when she was beautiful, as here, her looks belied sadness. It's little wonder that she was married to Ray at the time they made the movie: Her withering fatalism must have been sustaining to him.
Manufacturing Consent. Perhaps the first futuristic documentary, Manufacturing Consent is most interesting in that it's a documentary not about events or people so much as ideas. Most of those ideas belong to the most fascinating media critic of the 20th century, Noam Chomsky. For 25 years, Chomsky has been a lightning rod for naysayers and pundits who attack his propaganda modeling. Sometimes he's dismissed for being about as reliable in his understanding of "how things really work" as some UFO-obsessed crackpot, a fringe-dweller with radically unpopular ideas. Just as often, he is called the most intellectually rigorous gadfly American culture has yet produced, a latter-day Tocqueville preaching from his pulpit about the media's stranglehold over the shaping of popular opinion. Maybe you won't buy into Chomsky's thesis that the media are involved in what amounts to a grand conspiracy of misinformation intended to keep the populace in a perpetual state of calculated ignorance. What is difficult to refute is that the media are at least unwitting pawns in self-imposed intellectual darkness. Since the media anoint the standard-bearers of both the "far left" and the "far right," all debate gets framed within those boundaries, discouraging the public from pursuing more radical ideas that lack currency and, thus, legitimacy. The film abounds with evidence supporting his theory including the dominance of a handful of major media conglomerates and the arrogant presumptions made by corporate and governmental giants. But agree or not, you can't help but be compelled by Chomsky's ideas; the filmmakers, who obviously think Chomsky is more right than wrong, catalogue his theories in a sane, lucid fashion, full of stylish visual techniques. The film never condescends even though it addresses complex issues, and neither does it ever become boring. Its gripping maturity and respect for its audience are positively fearsome.
Orphans and The Playboys. Some people call Albert Finney the George C. Scott of British cinema, but the rest of us consider his patented mixture of bluster and vulnerability the most reliably explosive recipe on international screens during the past 25 years. Orphans is Alan J. Pakula's stagey version of Lyle Kessler's three-character play about a wounded American gangster (Finney) who comes between two abandoned brothers, hot-headed Treat (Matthew Modine) and childlike Phillip (Kevin Anderson). Finney hides out inside the ramshackle home shared by these lost souls, and in the process drives a wedge into their delicate relationship that guarantees a symphony of sniffles from sympathetic audiences. We dare you not to soil Kleenex as Finney delivers his "I was a dead-end kid" monologue. The Playboys barely made a blip on the early '90s art-house radar, but this bittersweet melodrama drew a finer performance from Robin Wright (Mrs. Sean Penn) than her vapid, Oscar-nominated turn in Forrest Gump. Wright portrays a headstrong Irish waif whose pregnancy out of wedlock inspires the stormy protection of a local police officer (Finney again). Finney plays a prudish middle-ager whose charming shyness masks a violent temper. Watch him build a cradle and then smash it to bits when her polite, if limited, attention doesn't suit his obsessive plans.
The Other. The late Thomas Tryon's horror novel became a publishing sensation in the late '60s that preceded William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist yet exploited a similar theme--the malevolent potential of children. The film version of The Other, directed by Robert Mulligan (To Kill A Mockingbird, Same Time Next Year), doesn't belabor the shocking exploits of possessed children the way William Friedkin's The Exorcist does, but it offers a subtler, creepier variation on innocents whose motivations are simpatico with a larger evil outside of them. In this case, the anti-heroes are twins (Chris and Martin Udvarnoky) living in 1930s Connecticut who love to watch really naughty things--even if they've caused them. Don't be turned off by the fact that John "Three's Company" Ritter makes his film debut in a small but crucial role. Calling The Other a horror film is a stretch: The minimal shocks are dependent on a viewer's patient reading of the characters. Those who commit themselves will be rewarded.
The Raven. One-man studio Roger Corman is responsible for training an impressive number of today's most respected directors through his low-brow-equals-high-profit approach to independent filmmaking. Throughout the '60s and early '70s he filmed seven movies "loosely based" on the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Only a couple bore much resemblance to the master's original words; the rest provided an opportunity for the inimitable Vincent Price to ham it up while Corman supplied buckets of Karo syrup, bevies of buxom beauties, and a keen eye for screen composition that has been underappreciated by camp theoreticians. This "adaptation" of Poe's epic poem is at once the most ludicrous and the most enjoyable of Corman's Poe improvs. The tale of a pair of bumbling wizards (Price and Peter Lorre) attempting to defeat a resurrected black-magic master (Boris Karloff) bears no resemblance at all to Poe's haunting verse, but it does provide a trio of horror-film greats the chance to spout truly witty dialogue (courtesy of screenwriter Richard Matheson) and not embarrass themselves by appearing in such unabashed schlock. Look for Jack Nicholson as Lorre's well-meaning son.
Tatie Danielle. You say old people are the most underrepresented minority in cinema these days? Don't tell that to director Etienne Chatiliez and veteran stage actress Tsila Chelton, who collaborated on this pitiless laughfest from France that explores the wide chasm between how we talk about the elderly and what we truly think of them. In the case of the title character (the brilliant Chelton), it's difficult not to badmouth her: She's a hateful, selfish, reckless, manipulative, backstabbing golden-ager forced to live with her great-nephew and his family after she (accidentally?) causes the death of the old woman who's looked after her for years. Like most great satire, Tatie Danielle works as both raucous dark comedy and shameful confession. Like all groundbreaking cinema, it exposes the hypocrisies beneath the polite conversation we hold most dear--in this case, our condescending treatment of seniors. Tsila Chelton as Tatie Danielle gets away with her horrible behavior because the in-laws around her refuse to hold a "frail, dependent" woman in her 80s responsible for her actions--until she sends them all down the river.
A Wedding. Writer-director Robert Altman has alternately enjoyed his status as The Greatest Living American Filmmaker and The Most Pretentious Misanthrope Alive. Skip over Altman standards like M*A*S*H, Nashville, and The Player and head straight for this hysterical comedy about a marriage between members of families of tragically different classes. A Wedding boasts all the Altman trademarks--lots of zoom shots and few closeups; a mixture of unknowns and a celebrity who's-who (Carol Burnett, Mia Farrow, Lillian Gish, Vittorio Gassman) as cast members; and a rancorous refusal to judge even the most obnoxious characters. Yet it boasts a mixture of frivolity and devilishness rare in this acclaimed director's career. With the senile bishop who oversees the ceremony and the adulterous affair brewing between two unlikely members of the opposing families (Burnett and Pat McCormack, the latter of whom declares in their most passionate scene, "Right now your mouth is the most important opening on your body"), this is vintage Altman insanity not given its proper due upon release.
Zentropa. Rarely has German Neo-Expressionism been so thoroughly immersed in surreal imagery as in Zentropa, a bizarre dream-image fantasy thriller. The movie begins methodically, whisking you to 1945 Germany immediately after the war. Leopold Kessler, an American of German descent, decides to help rebuild Germany in the most grass-roots manner possible--by becoming a conductor of the famed Zentropa Company sleeping-car line--leading to an increasingly labyrinthine series of plots and melodramas. It's a puzzle movie meant to indict the morally undermined position that ennui plays in a political system: Does Leopold belong to one side of the political fight or the other? If not, isn't it preferable for him to make any choice rather than becoming paralyzed with indecision? Zentropa's complexity might seem off-putting, but it's never boring.